The Season So Far
After the frustration and embarrassment of 2015-16, the only thing most Swansea fans really wanted this time around was to stay away from the relegation battle and enjoy watching their team again. The surprising departures of titanic, long-serving captain Ashley Williams and last season’s top scorer André Ayew gave a clear indication that all was not to be well at the Liberty Stadium, and so it proved. The signings of Spanish strikers Fernando Llorente and Borja Bastón hinted that there may be hope, but the reality has been rather more disappointing – close to catastrophic, in fact.
Quickly sucked into a struggle for Premier League survival, Manager Number One Francesco Guidolin had no answer and was sent packing in October. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing – managerial change has been a constant theme for Swansea over the last few years – but it’s worrying that the trend in South Wales has changed in nature. Before they lost their bosses to bigger clubs after significantly overachieving, and now they sack their managers every half-season because without a change they’ll be in big danger.
Suspiciously American Manager Number Two Bob Bradley stepped into the breach and promptly angered much of the British Proper Football Man community by having been born in the United States and thus being inherently unable to understand football. Unfortunately, regardless of birthplace or the prejudices Bradley faced, he really did seem unable to understand football and Swansea’s freefall only accelerated on his watch. He lasted 86 days, or eleven games, and was arguably fortunate to string it out for that long.
Manager Number Three, Paul Clement, is considerably more British and thus more acceptable to the Proper Football Man’s cultured palette. To be fair, former Chelsea youth coach/first team coach/assistant manager Clement seems more acceptable to his players, too, and since he arrived the Swans have got out of the relegation zone and started to play like a proper football team again.
If there has been one shining light in the darkness of Swansea’s season – and there arguably has been only one – it’s been Gylfi Sigurðsson. Now with eight goals and eight assists this season, the talismanic Icelander is a beacon in a sea of absolutely terrifying mediocrity.
The Season Ahead
Avoiding relegation is the only aim left for Swansea and they seem set to achieve it. Leicester’s almighty collapse, combined with Sunderland, Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough being rotten in a nauseating number of ways, means Swansea have a great chance to stay up if only Clement can keep them doing the basics right, like defending as a unit, giving the ball to Sigurðsson, and not allowing Jordi Amat to set foot on a pitch wearing their colours ever again.
It would also be of great use if Fernando Llorente could start scoring goals again, and if Borja Bastón could start scoring goals at all. Sigurðsson is beyond phenomenal but the attacking burden can’t be carried solely by one player, especially when there are several others capable of chipping in.
In contrast to Manager Number One and Manager Number Two, who experimented with several systems and never seemed sure which was best or in which one the players seemed most comfortable, Clement has stuck with one system and kept instructions very simple since taking over. He’s played a very lop-sided 4-3-3, with the right-forward playing as an orthodox winger and Sigurðsson cutting inside from the left, allowing new perennial relegation-battler Martin Olsson to overlap at pace.
The attacks have primarily come down the right, with there being a more coherent and familiar feel to that side of the team, while the players’ on the left have to overload the centre or simply get into the box. It’s worth noting that they pose a big threat from set pieces: Sigurðsson’s delivery and shooting are first-rate, and he has plenty of targets to aim for.
At the back, there’s nothing revolutionary about the way they defend but it’s worth noting that it’s a damn sight more cohesive and organised than it was two months ago. While it’s undoubtedly true that Swansea don’t look anywhere near as porous at the back as they did under Bradley, it would be false to say they’ve stopped shooting themselves in the foot: the goals they conceded in their recent win away to Liverpool, for example, and in their even more recent defeat away to Manchester City, were all their own fault – the result of lapses of concentration, poor anticipation and embarrassing individual blunders.
The good news for Swansea fans, in the long term, is that they’re nowhere near as bad as their league position suggests. They rank firmly in the middle of the pack in almost all shot metrics and their defensive actions numbers are sound. For that reason, it’s no surprise that they’ve pulled away from danger.
More specifically, the obvious danger is Gylfi Sigurðsson: by far Swansea’s best player and one who will surely move on (again) in the summer. There are plenty of far better teams with far worse number tens. Besides that, the defence must be aware of the threat posed by the pace of the wing-backs Naughton and Olsson at transitions, while Leroy Fer has plundered six goals from a midfield poaching role this season. Also, Fernando Llorente is a very competent number nine and it’s not for nothing that Chelsea were linked so heavily with him not so long ago.
Conceding a set piece is dangerous in two phases: primarily, Sigurðsson could bury any free-kick from within 30 yards; secondly, Sigurðsson could work Courtois and leave Fer with a tap-in; thirdly, centre-back Alfie Mawson is in a rich vein of goalscoring form and any cross into the box is likely to be aimed at his forehead, and for good reason.
Even with the spectacularly hapless Jordi Amat nowhere to be seen, every member of Swansea’s backline has a penchant for slapstick and it would be no surprise if they gifted a goal or two in thoroughly laughable circumstances. Under Bradley the Swans were especially vulnerable from set-pieces in the absence of the departed Ashley Williams, and, if Chelsea can get their delivery right, they can reasonably expect to have chances from dead-ball positions.
There’s also the fact that Swansea’s defensive strategy, while notably improved, limits their attacking possibilities on the counter, and asks too much of Sigurðsson in open play. Chelsea should find it relatively easy to regain the ball when it’s cleared and work it back into goalscoring positions, and with Sigurðsson drifting inside at will, César Azpilicueta and Victor Moses should be very free to play on the right flank.
There’s a familiar, settled feel about Swansea’s eleven at the moment and it would be a surprised if there were any unforced changes. There will be at least one forced change due to injury to Nathan Dyer on the right flank. Luciano Narsingh or Wayne Routledge will step in.
Thibaut Courtois is a doubt for Chelsea due to illness but besides that there are no reasons to predict changes.
Chelsea’s title push will continue undeterred. A relatively forgettable 2-0, which won’t excite anyone except Antonio Conte, who it will excite far too much.